My sister was engrossed with Dickens and decided to give up her career as a world-renowned pianist and to become an author. She wrote a story about a little girl who became famous as an author, as an actress and as a great artist” (p.72)
Reading was clearly an important pastime and influence in Frederick’s childhood. His uncle Charlie used to read Dickens to him and his older sister Nell before bed, which they considered were ‘Intelligent’ books. This clearly left a huge impression on the two children. Nell, with the help of Frederick, attempted to write their own story. This reading and writing experience was a shared, and loved, family occurrence. Frederick shares little about other media forms, aside from the moving pictures being ‘exciting’, so this memory was clearly one of value to Frederick.
My mother had a very effective way of limiting the time my sister kept herself awake writing her stories. Each night my mother cut off a piece of candle about half an inch long and when that burnt out the writing came to an end. (p.73)
Dickens was considered to be one of the most prolific writers of, and about, the working class, and especially living in Portsmouth during this period we can understand why Frederick and Nell were so taken by his work. Frederick discusses poverty, the workhouse and unemployment from his own front door, something which Dickens portrayed in poignant detail and in a way that the children could relate to and understand, despite being far from the risks of poverty themselves. Jonathan Rose (1992) explains how Dickens provided working people with the inspiration and the generic literary conventions they needed to tell their own stories (p.60), and this is clear here, not only through Nell’s story but through Frederick’s own memoir.
One day my sister said her story was nearly finished and she was taking me round to Mr Dickens’ house to ask him to print it in a book as he printed lots of books and he would know how to do it. She was so excited at the thought of seeing Mr Dickens that it was still unfinished when the time came. (p.73)
Frederick does not go into detail about any of the titles that they had read, so there is no way to tell which Dicken’s books they had become ‘engrossed’ in, but the impression they had on Nell was interesting. Nell’s story, inspired by Dickens, centred around a young girl also called Nell. (Frederick later clarifies they had not read The Old Curiosity Shop and the name was simply chosen from her own namesake). This girl however was said to be a beautiful actress, artist and author, living independently with seemingly no love interest or children as an important factor. This may not seem as important nowadays, but in Victorian England, particularly for a working class family, a woman being successful in her own right was almost unheard of. There are few strong or successful women in Dickens’ novels either, so young Nell was perhaps inspired to create her own story to fill the gap.
You see” my sister said, “me and my brother have written this story and we want it printed so that our Uncle Charlie can read it to us like he reads Mr Dickens” […] The lady gave a very prim smile. “I’m afraid Mr Dickens is dead”. We were shocked. My sister thought all the trouble and all the effort she had put into writing the story had been wasted as Mr Dickens was the only man we knew who printed stories.” (p.75)
Having been born and lived in Portsmouth, Dickens was clearly well thought of within the area, and his birthplace was marked, still remaining a popular attraction today. Frederick and Nell attempted to find ‘Mr. Dickens’ to print their story. Unfortunately, though, upon arriving at the birthplace it was revealed to the children that he had in fact died, much to their dismay. Despite this, however, the woman who they spoke to advised them that ‘Nell [the character] was very very clever and is more beautiful than anyone in England. You must try to be like her’. Not only did this woman encourage the children to keep writing and create goals, it was again a progressive concept for young girls especially.
As I discussed in my Education post here, Frederick does not talk in great detail about his education and therefore other than this heart-warming memory he does not speak further on the matters. However, we know that Frederick, and Nell, were from a fairly comfortable family in which they were able to afford small luxuries. Not only could the children read books to a degree where they were confident enough to write their own, but they could read music, sing hymns and read the bible at Sunday school. Whilst the Education Act meant that children of any class attended school, these luxuries were few and far between for most working class children. The experience of reading was clearly an important and poignant memory for Frederick, and I believe the influence of Dickens stuck with him.
Hardy, F. (1884). An Interesting Story. [Oil on Panel] Lincolnshire: Usher Gallery.
Hedley, R. (1908). Kept In. [Oil on Panel] Newcastle: Laing Art Gallery.
Rose, J. (1992). Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas, 53(1), p.47.
whatwasthere (1880). Charles Dickens Birthplace. [image] Available at: http://www.whatwasthere.com/browse.aspx#!/ll/50.807047,-1.08693600000004/id/21428/info/details/zoom/14/
Wynne, Frederick Charles. ‘Old Pompey and Other Places’. Burnett Archive of Working class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library. Special Collection, 2:08